Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Tale of Two Sauls

In today's first reading we are introduced to the Man Who Would Be King: the first king of Israel, that
is. Saul, son of Kish the Benjaminite, is introduced to us in just way you would expect a future king to be presented: "a handsome young man…[who] stood head and shoulders above the people." And yet Saul's reign was not a particularly happy time for Israel, even though he did indeed lead the people into victory over and over. Later, we see Saul fall into horrific depression. The prophet Samuel even diagnoses it: Saul, although anointed "commander over God's people," is "little in his own eyes." He overcompensates, using all the resources available to control his world--at one point even hiring a medium to summon the prophet Samuel from the land of the spirits. Unable to escape the experience of failure, the first anointed King of Israel died a battlefield suicide.

Little in his own eyes--and everyone
else's--Paul put his confidence in the
Christ who called him.
On this third day of the novena for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, it is hard not to think of the King's much later namesake, Saul of Tarsus. Physically, this Saul couldn't have been more different from the King. Where the son of Kish was strikingly tall and handsome, the man of Tarsus is traditionally described as bald, bowlegged and sickly. But Saul, our Paul, was also "little in his own eyes." We have ample testimony in his own writings:  "I am nothing" (2 Cor. 12:11); "I am less than the least of the holy ones" (Eph. 3:8); "I am the least of the apostles" (1 Cor. 15:9). And yet Paul, as well acquainted as he was with suffering, abandonment and times of darkness, does not fall into the frantic hyper-controlling ways of the first king.

What makes the difference?

I think we find the secret in today's Gospel: the call of Levi. Jesus didn't just call Levi; he used the occasion to describe his own vocation. "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Saul of Tarsus cheerfully recognized himself in this number: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of these I am foremost" (1 Tim. 1:15). And it seems that every time Paul experienced his littleness, he reaffirmed his confidence in the call of God: 

  • "Although I am less than the least of all the the holy ones, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8).
  • "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me" (2 Cor. 12: 9).
  • "I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect" (1 Cor 15:9-10).
Failure--no matter in what--is an extremely difficult thing to accept with peace. Sickness, accident, death: all these are patently beyond our control. But failure…that's where self-reproach has free reign.
Paul shows us a great strategy for confronting the temptation to dwell on failure. He uses his own experiences (and, yes, Paul the Apostles knew failure from the inside: read 2 Cor. 12 for a list) as a trampoline that allows him to spring even higher in recognizing the grace of God in him. Anytime someone would say, "Paul," he would respond, "Yes, but Christ!" 

The Responsorial Psalm gave me a good way to turn all of this into prayer; see how the Psalmist, too, referred every success to God!

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